When you’re first starting out on your wine journey, it can feel difficult to describe what you’re tasting. At first, wine just tastes like…wine. And yet, experts note that a single glass contains hundreds of aromas and wine flavor notes. How is that possible?
Wine contains a whole bunch of compounds that give off specific flavors and aromas. It’s a simple matter of chemistry. However, the way we talk about those flavors – since we have to translate a feeling into words – is more of an art than a science. Wine flavor notes provide a shared vocabulary for wine lovers to describe what they’re tasting and smelling.
There might be some disagreement about specifics – for instance, one sommelier might detect “lemon,” while another notes “tangerine,” but both would probably agree that they’re picking up a sweet citrusy quality. It’s helpful to become acquainted with some common wine flavor notes so that you can (a) better communicate what you’re tasting and (b) understand the tasting notes on a new bottle.
Ever look at the tasting notes on a wine label? Winemakers will often include these so you know what you’re getting, but if you’re new to wine, they might seem confusing. The tasting notes might read, “This Syrah has notes of plum, milk chocolate, and forest floor.”
Naturally, you might wonder, “Are there pine needles at the bottom of the bottle?” The answer is no. There are no pine needles, no plums, and no chocolate. Just grapes, and flavor compounds that are reminiscent of those other flavors. So, let’s say you’re allergic to plums – fear not, you can still have Syrah. Below are some wine flavor notes that come up a lot. But first, what exactly is a flavor note? Is it a scent, or a taste, or both?
Flavor Notes: The Basics
Wine Flavor notes can refer to a taste, a smell, or both. A wine with notes of “green apple,” has a combination of sharp acidity (a taste) and light fruit flavors (a scent). How do you know which flavors you’re tasting and which you’re smelling?
Our sense of taste – meaning what our tongues can detect – is limited to just five sensations: salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami. Our nose fills in the rest of the picture. This is not to say that taste doesn’t play an important role. For instance, the tongue picks up on sweetness – something that the nose can’t smell.
Taste buds can also differentiate between different types of “sour” tastes. In wine, sourness comes from acidity and not all acids taste the same. Malic acid tastes tart, while lactic acid tastes creamier.
Another fun fact about the senses: Smelling happens in both the nose and the mouth. Orthonasal olfaction is the scientific name for smelling through your nose (i.e., the normal way), while retronasal olfaction is the smelling that happens from inside your mouth. So, when a wine expert says, “I’m getting notes of peach,” they’re smelling aromas of peach, not tasting peach.
Where do Wine Flavor Notes Come From?
Some of the flavors in wine come from the grapes, and others are formed during the winemaking process or later on as the wine ages.
These come directly from the grapes used to make the wine, and include fruity, herbal, and floral notes, as well as certain earthy and spice notes. The type of grapes and the climate they were grown in will affect the flavors of the wine.
These aromas come from different parts of the winemaking process.
These aromas come from the aging process. Some aromas indicate that the wine was aged in bottles, while others are indicative of oak aging.
Common Wine Flavor Notes
Black fruit and red fruit are common descriptors in red wine. Blackberry, blueberry, brambleberry, and plum are considered dark fruits and are used to describe tannic full-bodied reds with some sweetness and some tartness.
Meanwhile, notes of strawberry, red raspberry, and tart cherry fall under the red fruit category. These usually describe red wines with more acidity and tartness. Exception to the rule: “stewed fruit” or “jammy” notes usually describe flavors that come from controlled oxidation – part of the winemaking process in which small, controlled amounts of oxygen get added, resulting in rich and complex flavors.
Stone fruit (i.e., fruits that have “stones” or pits in the middle, like apricot or peach), tree fruit like pear and apple, citrus fruit like lemon, lime, and grapefruit are often used to describe white wines. Wines with more citrusy flavors are probably made from less ripe grapes.
Tropical fruit flavors – such as mango and pineapple – can indicate that the wine was made with riper grapes, and that the grapes were grown in a hot climate.
Floral scents, like chamomile and white jasmine, come through because of aromatic compounds like polyphenols and terpenes. These compounds are found in flowers, certain types of tea, and grapes. Grapes with high concentrations of these compounds – like Viognier and Gewürztraminer – will produce more floral wines. Other floral notes, like honeysuckle, come from noble rot – a fungus that dries out the berries and makes wine sweeter. You might notice honeysuckle in Sauternes.
Herbs like fennel and grass convey a savory bitterness in wine. “Grassy” can indicate that the wine was made in a cooler or maritime climate, as is the case with Albariño from northwestern Spain and Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand. Wines that contain pyrazines, an aromatic compound, are said to have a “green” streak. Depending on the climate where the wine was made, this flavor may taste more like fresh bell pepper, or more like roasted red pepper or cayenne-spiced chocolate.
A flavor or aroma of black pepper comes from a terpene called rotundone, which is present in peppercorns. This savory, spicy note is found in French Syrah, Australian Shiraz, Cinsault, and Sangiovese. Wines with a eucalyptus flavor or aroma contain a compound called eucalyptol.
Interestingly, research has shown that more eucalyptol is present in wine made in vineyards near eucalyptus trees. Apparently, the compound travels through the air onto grape skins. Other spice notes – including cinnamon, anise, and nutmeg – are a result of oak aging. These are common in Primitivo, Shiraz, and Zinfandel.
When a wine has notes of black tea, it usually means that the wine has robust, pleasant tannins. Tannins are polyphenols that have a drying effect on the mouth. You might see this note used for bold reds like Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, and Cabernet Sauvignon. “Earthy” is sort of an umbrella term, and can have both positive and negative connotations.
Pinot Noir is often described as earthy, meaning that fruit flavors are balanced out by a scent similar to wet forest floor. If a wine contains too much of the compound geosmin, the earthy aromas can eclipse fruity notes, resulting in an unpleasant sip.
Tobacco might not sound like a positive, but it’s not meant to conjure up the smell of cigarette smoke. Rather, it’s used to indicate the pleasant, woody scent of tobacco leaves. It’s usually a result of bottle aging.
When it comes to mineral notes like chalk, flint, graphite, and saline, there is some debate over how these flavors emerge. Some would argue that a hint of graphite is the result of oak aging, but many people think that terroir is responsible. Wines described as “chalky” often come from cool-climate vineyards with stony soils – such as Chablis. Additionally, wines with a hint of “salt” or “saline” often come from places where salty ocean air wafts over the grape vines. Think Albariño from coastal Spain or Assyrtiko from Greece.
Flavor Notes from the Winemaking Process
Flavors that come from fermentation can include almond and beeswax. Almond is usually used to describe a nice fruity bitterness in wine. This scent comes from the compound benzaldehyde, which can form during fermentation or carbonic maceration. A note of beeswax comes through when there’s a lot of ethyl acetates – a byproduct of fermentation. A buttery note can come from malolactic fermentation, or as the result of oak aging.
Flavor Notes from Oak Aging or Bottle Aging
Wines aged in oak often develop notes of vanilla and other rich aromatics. Vanilla, which is used to describe a sweet spicy aroma, can be found in both red and white wines that have been aged in American oak, including Rioja and Chardonnay. Similarly, the presence of certain lactones give off a toasted coconut aroma.
Caramel notes can result from noble rot – in the case of Sauternes – or oak aging – in the case of California Chardonnay. Oak-aged wines with the compound furfurylthiol will have a smoky coffee aroma. Chocolate or cocoa is often used to describe oak-aged red wines. When described as “cocoa,” the wine may have ripe, sweet tannins.
Putting it Into Practice
How do you start noticing all of a wine’s many flavors and aromas? Start by swirling your glass before you sniff it. Swirling introduces more oxygen into the wine, which helps it “open up.” You can either keep the base of your glass on the table and move it in circles or you can pick it up and swirl it in the air. Then, hold it up to your nose and see what you notice. Take a moment with your first sip, and see if you notice changes in sensation from the beginning to the end of the sip.
Consider the primary aromas, and then get more specific. If you notice ripe red fruit on the first sip, can you narrow down the kind of fruit? Are there any notes that would make you guess that the wine has been aged in oak? Take your time, and remember: practice makes perfect.
In Vino Finito
Understanding where wine flavor notes come from can help give you a leg up at your next blind tasting. There are infinite possibilities of flavor combinations, so thankfully wine lovers will never get bored.
If you're a current Bright Cellars member and would like to try wines with any of the flavor notes listed above, reach out to our Concierge team (email@example.com) who will be happy to include those wines in your next order.